Analogy and the History of Comparatism

Right now I’m working on a long article about the cross-disciplinary history of the modern comparative method. It’s really, really interesting to read disciplinary histories from across the humanities & social sciences (mainly linguistics, anthropology, sociology, political science, history, and literature) and see how different fields and their objects inflect basic questions about the nature of change, the implications of pattern, and the relation between historical and synchronic/contextual perspectives. The article tests a key argument from my book, The Age of Analogy (a claim for the interplay of “analogy” and “comparison” in the formation of the modern comparative method), by looking at disciplines beyond literary and scientific history, and considering scholarship in French and German, as well as English.

If I wanted to be cheekily topical in that article (and I don’t), I would point to the comparisons that people are now drawing between the crowd sizes at the 2009 and 2017 presidential inaugurations. Such comparison is (1) meant to gauge something about the distinctions between two different political formations and two different moments in historical time, and (2) is necessarily structured by analogy. To read the comparison is to recognize the relation between a common structuring spatial scheme (the Mall), and its service as a framework for a series of implicit analogical relations, which can be summarized in the form “A is to B as C is to D,” or A : B :: C : D. The most obvious implied analogy here: Obama’s 2009 crowd size : enthusiasm for Obama :: Trump’s 2017 crowd size : enthusiasm for Trump. (I note that the counter arguments offered by Sean Spicer and others center on why the two situations aren’t analogous: there were white ground coverings in 2017, new delays in the security, etc.).

This isn’t an example used in the article, which will (hopefully) be out sometime toward the end of this year, but I thought I’d share here my [lightly edited] response for our MLA panel in Philadelphia a few weeks ago on “Analogy after the Enlightenment.” It was organized by Adam Sneed and Taylor Schey, and featured impressive papers by Taylor, Elizabeth Duquette, and Ken Hirschkop.

The question I want to begin with: why should we study analogy? Listening to these papers, the answers seem to be (generalizing broadly — and what is the job of respondent but to generalize?):

(1) We should study analogy because (as Taylor accurately notes) it has been positioned as a key marker for the transition between Enlightenment/Augustan poetics and Romanticism (a formulation that has helped make sure it was almost entirely overlooked in the C19). To return to analogy, in his account, then means to refigure the deep Romantic investment in relationality and uncertainty in a longer framework — one that wouldn’t require us to forget the eighteenth century (or even the rest of the 19th in the signature Romantic leap to modernism), but recognize a more continuous narrative.

(2) In Elizabeth’s account, the turn to analogy helps us rethink the philosophical coordinates of the mid-nineteenth century novel, or at least, Melville and the way that philosophical discourse presents a problem for the novel’s investment in incident and character, forcing it to tell rather than to show. So, to return to Taylor’s argument, if the Romantics put paid to analogy, and Anglophone print culture was truly transAtlantic, it should be deeply surprising that analogy remained a concern for mid-nineteenth century novels (popping up also in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and George Eliot’s Felix Holt).

(3) Finally, as Ken explains (with extraordinary precision), analogy was not only important to linguistics, but perhaps the most important formal procedure for the formation of Saussure’s structural distinction between langue and parole. If this is true (and I think it is), this means that analogy is central to the structural turn — an unacknowledged founding move that helped to birth many of the critical procedures that we gesture to when we say (or used to say) postmodern or poststructural.

To these I would add that there’s a strong argument to be made for analogy’s central role in new historicism (as Alan Liu has argued) by way of Clifford Geertz and American-school social anthropology, with its focus on comparing thin and thick description, text and context. And it was also an important procedure for Marxist formalist criticism, with its profound but compulsive concern for the relation between economic or productive “base” and cultural “super structure.” Even a work like Frederic Jameson’s Political Unconscious — a book that continues to be a central pivot for our reconsiderations and anxieties about what it is that we do when we do literary scholarship — can be seen as an extended meditation on the Marxist problem of “reflection,” which is most simply just another disciplinary specification of a dynamic that, in a longer history, was called “analogy.”

So: Why do we study analogy? For lots of good reasons. Analogy is part of the story of how we got here. And in the current political moment, the story of how we got here seems really, really important.

A further question might be: How might we flesh out what analogy means, particularly in the nineteenth century, when its cultural, methodological, and philosophical meanings were (and are still) in flux?

As I have recently argued, in my book, “The Age of Analogy” (just out from Johns Hopkins Press), both analogy and comparison — as terms and as methods — were fundamentally reformulated in the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century — in the transition that put us “after the Enlightenment.”

Analogy, which had played an important role in Western philosophy, Christian metaphysics and philology, had long represented a strategy of relational analysis that studied similarity. First stop. Comparison, on the other hand, was largely incubated in the classical rhetorical tradition as a way to underline contrasts and distinctions. Second stop. The modern comparative method emerged when these two traditions were brought together and focused on the problem of studying both how things are similar and different — what we now call, in primary education, to “compare and contrast.”

When I first stumbled upon this claim, while writing yet another abstract of the book to be, it seemed so simple, it simply couldn’t be true. With the benefit of several more years I can say, not only is it true, but it applies not only to English, but to academic writing in French (where the operative terms are “comparaison” and “analogie”) and German (and the terms “vergleich” and “analogie”). Not only that, but this reformulation of analogy and comparison played an important role in the formation of the modern humanist disciplines, organizing in important ways not only how people like Matthew Arnold thought about culture, as an object and as a hermeneutic, but more generally, in the formation of anthropology, biology, sociology, religious studies, philology/linguistics, mythology, political science, and of course, literary criticism in English. At the most general level, analogy structured the linguistic and cultural turns that later dominated 20th century humanism.

Seen through this lens, analogy starts to look less like our peculiar hobbyhorse — that rhetorical figure that for some reason has seemed less sexy than metaphor, allegory, or symbol — and more like an important engine for the disciplinary formation of the modern humanities.

And yet it’s quite rare, not just in English literary criticism, but in the various disciplinary histories that I’ve been reading recently, truly rare for anyone to talk about the relation between comparison and analogy. This is true even in a field like linguistics that, despite having retained the term “analogy” for a specific language phenomenon, as Ken explained, virtually never considers the importance of analogy to the formation of the comparative method, a moment that essentially birthed modern linguistics from the older traditions of philology, translation, and rhetoric. Analogy in linguistics, as in Romanticism and most fields of comparative analysis, remains a kind of abject term that denominates outmoded or problematic practices even as we happily go along comparing and contrasting. What else, for instance, might we call the “relational comparison” of Édouard Glissant & Shu-mei Shih? Or the “equivalences that do not unify” described by Franz Fanon and Natalie Melas? Virtually all modern disciplines, comparative literature not excepted, have amassed a range of new terms that have formalized procedures that were once more loosely termed “analogies.” (A bit closer to my disciplinary home, I don’t know if anyone else here was at the panel yesterday on “‘Victorian’ in a comparative field,” but in spite of some really impressive accounts of the past, present, and future of comparative literary studies, the term “analogy” never came up.) This is surprising and truly interesting if you believe (as I do) that there is no comparatism, historically or methodologically speaking, without “analogy.”

Conspicuous absence arguments are always a kind of a critical Mcguffin, but I do think we should think more about why this is so. Why is it that discussions of comparatism don’t invoke analogy as an important critical object, and vice versa? I hope we can start to think more but also talk more about the relation between analogy and comparison. For one thing, it would help us in thinking concretely about the expressive forms and generic histories of comparative study. This isn’t simply a question of intellectual history; to overlook analogy’s place in the modern comparative method is to overlook the basic formal structure that allows comparatism to operate.

To put it differently, it might be more appropriate to think of analogy as a network of affiliated practices, each with important histories and contexts, rather than as a stable object or single tradition. To adapt Franco Moretti’s argument in his most influential essay, “Conjectures on World Literature,” (which itself draws demonstrably on disciplinary arguments over the nature of analogy within comparative literature and anthropology as well as evolutionary biology); as I say, to adopt Moretti’s argument, we might study analogy as an interplay of waves and trees. On the one hand, we might study analogies in the waves of interdisciplinary contact through which relational analysis is adapted to new phenomena — often founding or substantially remaking entire fields of study. But we might also study analogy through trees of influence, through narratives of differentiation that trace the network of those operations over time and study the patterns of these engagements. This would also help us place the importance of specific applications and discoveries of analogy within the wider humanities.

A final problem is that, if analogy is in fact central to humanist scholarship, its historical study inevitably depends on its object as method. This isn’t a new problem, but certainly demands that we think carefully about how the dynamic we identify as “analogy” plays into our study of its various applications.

So, we should keep talking about analogy after the Enlightenment. Because it might be the case that analogy helps describe a big chunk of what happened in our disciplines after the Enlightenment. “After the Enlightenment,” after all, is shorthand for modernity, so let’s keep thinking about how analogy helps explain (or perhaps pose) our modern condition. Thanks.

Download as PDF.

“Romantic Planet: Science and Literature within the Anthropocene”

My Literature Compass article went live last week and I’ve been waiting to post about it; the idea for the piece was originally that it would try and locate my book (The Age of Analogy) within the subfield of literary criticism called “Romantic science and literature.” Along the way, though, I became more interested in what the field might tell us about the Anthropocene and the new “planetary” solidarity that, some argue, is required for a collective action that can address global warming.

I’ve been waiting to post the article while we worked on the html formatting of the Keats lines at the beginning. They’re the lines used as the epigraph for Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, from “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and they go:

The sedge is wither'd from the lake
        And no birds sing.

Looks simple, right? Turns out, though, that formatting poetry is hard in html, in part because it makes it difficult to tinker with line spacing, indentation and other formatting issues. The css that Literature Compass uses does have a block poetry class, but (ironically) it makes a hash out of the lines (when it was first published, the first line was broken at “the” and the second at “no,” producing “The sedge is wither’d / from the lake And / no birds sing”).

The folks at LC and the editor, Jonathan Sachs, have been working on it (and I feel kind of bad asking for the special attention), but the lines just look crazy when they’re not formatted right. Right now I’m seeing if they can try using the <pre> tag (as I have here) to try and preserve formatting. I suggested the following inside the block quote:

<i class=”icon icon__block icon__poem”><pre style=”font-family:Arial;”><p>The sedge is wither’d from the lake,</p><p>         And no birds sing.</p></pre></i>

In the meantime, you can check the piece out in html or download the (properly formatted) pdf — it’s outside the paywall for another couple of weeks! Here’s the abstract:

This article surveys recent scholarship in Romantic science and literature, exploring what such studies may offer the recent “planetary turn” in ecocriticism and postcolonial research on the Anthropocene. Situating these studies in a longer critical history, it explores their implications for how we engage modern climate science. The “Romantic century” 1750–1850 marks both the dawn of the Anthropocene and a formative stage in its sciences and technologies, from the industrial revolution to modern theories of climate change and ecology. Because ecocritical writing, including green Romanticism and ecofeminism, as well as research into colonialism, empire, and global capitalism were traditionally skeptical of Western science, their recent theorizations of “planetarity” do not adequately confront a new investment in the empirical claims of global warming. Positing that the traffic between science and social forms is asymmetric – two-way but uneven – the author argues that Romantic science and literature both furnishes a sophisticated historical epistemology for planetary studies and, in its concern for the technologies, genres, and social forms that produced the Anthropocene, an “epistemology of the climate” that may help us dig our way out.

Sampling the Novel (Dickens and Network “Connexion”)

A few weeks ago statistician Andrew Gelman posted an article that used Dickens’s social novels as an example of the perils of sampling networks (h/t to Jonathan Stray and Andrew Piper for tweeting about this). Whereas, in statistical methodologies, you can “sample” a larger diffuse or “atomisticcollection and get an accurate picture of what the larger group looks like, when sampling a few points in a large network, those samples give a very poor picture of the larger network structure. It’s a bit like the difference between picking a handful of M&M’s out of a bag and making an inference about the total color distribution (reasonably accurate), and sampling a handful of molecules within an M&M and making assumptions about what the larger shape, taste, paint pattern, etc. look like. The former doesn’t have much structure, but the latter does — and that structure matters.

Here’s how Gelman applies this to Dickens:

In traditional survey research we have been spoiled. If you work with atomistic data structures, a small sample looks like a little bit of the population. But a small sample of a network doesn’t look like the whole. For example, if you take a network and randomly sample some nodes, and then look at the network of all the edges connecting these nodes, you’ll get something much more sparse than the original. For example, suppose Alice knows Bob who knows Cassie who knows Damien, but Alice does not happen to know Damien directly. If only Alice and Damien are selected, they will appear to be disconnected because the missing links are not in the sample.

This brings us to a paradox of literature. Charles Dickens, like Tom Wolfe more recently, was celebrated for his novels that reconstructed an entire society, from high to low, in miniature. But Dickens is also notorious for his coincidences: his characters all seem very real but they’re always running into each other on the street (as illustrated in the map above, which comes from David Perdue) or interacting with each other in strange ways, or it turns out that somebody is somebody else’s uncle. How could this be, that Dickens’s world was so lifelike in some ways but filled with these unnatural coincidences?

My contention is that Dickens was coming up with his best solution to an unsolvable problems, which is to reproduce a network given a small sample. What is a representative sample of a network? If London has a million people and I take a sample of 100, what will their network look like? It will look diffuse and atomized because of all those missing connections. The network of this sample of 100 doesn’t look anything like the larger network of Londoners, any more than a disconnected set of human cells would look like a little person.

So to construct something with realistic network properties, Dickens had to artificially fill in the network, to create the structure that would represent the interactions in society. You can’t make a flat map of the world that captures the shape of a globe; any projection makes compromises. Similarly you can’t take a sample of people and capture all its network properties, even in expectation: if we want the network density to be correct, we need to add in links, “coincidences” as it were. The problem is, we’re not used to thinking this way because with atomized analysis, we really can create samples that are basically representative of the population. With networks you can’t.

Gelman goes on to argue that all of the supposed “coincidences” of a Dickensian novel are an attempt to simulate network structure or “links” where the number of sampled nodes are too small to fill out a real map of the network’s structure. So coincidences simulate what would be major linkages in the actual network of London ca. 1850.

It’s a cool idea — and it gets right to the heart of the famous question posed by the narrator of Dickens’s Bleak House:

What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world who from opposite sides of great gulfs have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!

But for Dickens, “connexion” obviously means more than association between characters. It has moral, filial, and in Bleak House, even epidemiological dimensions. One of the questions that launched my book, The Age of Analogy, was to ask what connected the various discursive registers that operate in Bleak House — what connects the legal system of the Court of Chancery to the salvage economy of Krook’s Court; what links the virtue of Esther Summerson’s narrative position to the small pox that sickens her? (Ultimately, I came to believe that one thing that links them as a new way of thinking about analogy — between characters, social formations, and discursive vocabularies — as a way to get at the sedimentary nature of history and social formations. I say “believe” because, along the way, Bleak House & Dickens fell out of the project.)

But whether this is true, Dickens’s characters do not operate “atomistically” or even as atoms linked by coincidence. What they do and how they interact displays a great deal of structure that is not pure invention. One way to get at this is that the network model has a dispersed physical and temporal dynamic that doesn’t lend itself to thinking about narrative.  Narratives are not links, though narratives may feature interactions between characters (moments that would count as either “links” or “coincidences” in Gelman’s account). But they also convey important information about the transformation of individual characters, and their transit with respect to other conditions beyond the social: geographical and economic movement, maturation from youth to age, etc. And narratives, through their invocation of generic history, constantly invoke links to modes of thought and histories of representation that, in some sense, exceed the network of the novel and even the network of London at any given time.

Gelman himself brings up another kind of sampling in his paper that I think provides a better way of thinking about how Dickens attempts to get at larger social structures, something he terms “fractal sampling“:

When you do a survey, you want to learn at all levels. For example, if you’re studying politics, you’ll want to know what’s happening nationally, you’ll want a nationally representative sample. But you’ll also want to know what’s happening at the state level, the city level, and the neighborhood level. You can’t expect to get good estimates for all the neighborhoods in the country or all the cities or even all the states, but you’ll want some information at all these levels. That’s what fractal sampling is all about.

Basically, the point is that you can change the sampling methodology in order to capture specific kinds of group & scalar structure. I think this is a better description of what Dickens’s novels do. For a given social question (configured through a specific subset (or sub network?) within the larger world), each novel seems to seek out representative constellations of character that capture the key groups that operate within that network. So, to return to Bleak House, the key problem seems to have to do with poverty and responsibility, as configured by different social & class postions within the city, and as they interplay with legal, administrative, religious, medical, and domestic networks. And if we go back to Bleak House’s famous question, it basically samples along those lines: a country house, a townhome, a servant (the “Mercury in powder”), a street sweeping urchin (“Joe”), a metaphysical visitation (the “distant ray of light”), the dirty churchyard step. I used to read this as an open question that assembled a more or less random collection to pose in extremis the problem of connection that underwrites all of what Henry James would later term “loose, baggy monsters.” Now I think there’s a fair case to be made that the question embeds a set of structural relations that underwrite the fractal sampling of a wider network of encounters: country and city, estate and town, servant (and master), poor and rich, church (and the secular government that will user Jo from that stoop), and worldly infrastructure (the stone of the church) in its tenuous possible connection to divine revelation (the light from above).

Of course, as Jonathan Grossman has taught us, there are lots of different kinds of networks in Dickens’s novels. But it’s interesting to think about how single sentences, “What connexion can there be…,” can be important nodes in bringing them together and suggesting their analogies.

kompromat (or: how I helped lose the election)

Today, as I’ve been relaunching my blog and migrating it from an Amazon EC2 cloud instance to a GoDaddy hosted wordpress account, I’ve been listening to the president elect hyperventilate over recent reports that Russia has compromising information on his business interests and peccadilloes, was at some point prepared to blackmail him, and had regular covert contact with his campaign. Crazy. Even crazier than the widespread reports that Russians used an army of hackers and trolls (especially Edward Snowden and Wikileaks) to help spread disinformation about the election and sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s like we’re living in a mashup of Bridge of Spies and Spies like Us.

But for me, the craziest thing of all is that I seem to have played a (tiny) role.

Let me share a bit more about why I’m moving the site. Recently my domain has been down, and I’d been struggling to figure out why, since the server seemed to be up and running. Worse, I couldn’t access WordPress or even ssh into the site, which meant I couldn’t check and see where the traffic was coming from and I couldn’t export my old posts for relaunch. Not being much of a tech wizard, I set the problem aside sometime over the summer.

Well, I finally gave up, and I’m now reconstructing the old posts by combing through the WP database backups that I was emailing to myself on a weekly basis (this is a PITA, by the way, and means I’m losing all images and documents hosted on the old site; but there’s a great tip on how to pull posts from a WordPress DB here).

Now that the site is up and running again, I thought I’d check in to Google Analytics. I hadn’t thought to look before because, since the site was down, I figured there wouldn’t be anything to track. This is what I found:


Check the nationality.


And check out the “language” used by my top visitors.


So the vast majority of visitors to the site were from Russia (and Kyrgyzstan). And their preferred language was either Russian or something called “ … Vote for Trump!” And the traffic spiked through election day and then collapsed in December.

Finally, if you look at the pages they were visiting, you see several pages that I never placed on the site:



Now I’m not sure what this all adds up to. They certainly couldn’t have secure shelled into the server itself (I’d done a lot to harden that). My guess is that they found some other way to exploit WordPress and take over the server, including creating content. But I am shocked. I’d be curious how much this tracks what other WordPress hosts saw over the same period. Certainly, it was the last thing I expected.

A few years ago I was complaining that maintaining your own server meant having to fend off increasingly severe and sophisticated attacks from hackers/bots located outside the US (something I’m not really equipped to do). Now it seems clear that this was more than just a hassle — it’s actually dangerous. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re basically opening up a channel for others to use against the world.

Sorry, democracy. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

moving day

When I first started this site I thought it would be fun to figure out how to run it on a free Amazon EC2 instance using WordPress. Years later and after countless crashes and security lapses, I’ve given up. Over the next few weeks I’ll be migrating all of my old posts to this site (hosted by GoDaddy). In the meantime, here’s something apropos from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs: